Catholic University’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music mounts a fabulous production of Finian’s Rainbow for its fall musical, with additional actors from Howard University and Duke Ellington School of the Arts. The 1947 musical has a book by E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy and music by Burton Lane with lyrics by Harburg.
Helen Hayes Award recipient, (for his choreography for Arena Stage’s critically acclaimed production of Oklahoma!) and Director and Choreographer Parker Esse, creates a simple, funny, and high-energy production of this classic hit. His choreography is beautiful and quite impressive for any production, let alone a University. One character, Susan Mahoney (Alyssa Sholander), is silent and talks through dance alone with his expressive choreography. He uses the large cast to best advantage, painting tableaus on stage and choreographing a moment for each dancer to shine in each extended sequence. Parker Esse was the Associate Choreographer for the 2009 Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow.
Esse is aided by Set Designer Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden, who created the single set with a stylized rainbow, a simple tree, and multiple grassy levels that the blocking makes great use of. It works perfectly with this production. Most of the stage is left alone and reserved for the dancing and telling the story.
The main mood of the stage comes from the Lighting Designer Michelle Ashley Mann. Aside from the fun special effects from a bit of magic, the main moods of the piece come from a plain white background that she saturates with every color of the rainbow at one point or another. It’s fitting and very moving.
It’s the actors though that make the night so special. The chorus is large and all are extremely good dancers and singers. Musical Director N. Thomas Pedersen summons beautiful singing from them with the help of a complete orchestra that matched them but never overpowered them. The flutist and piccolo player were standouts, particularly when the flutist played an Irish skylark. This is an ambitious score, for singer and instrumentalist, and everyone in the orchestra and on the stage succeeded wildly.
Finian’s Rainbow is about an Irish man and his daughter who come to the southern United States at the crossroads of Jim Crow, big business, upside-down mortgages, and tobacco. He’s followed by a leprechaun who wants his gold back. The whimsy and fun of the magic is off-set by sharp satire and commentary on racism and classism. The musical was so controversial when it premiered in 1947, that most theaters still balk at producing it, but as Benjamin Rome School of Music’s Dean Dr. Grayson Wagstaff said before the performance, “Catholic University is not afraid of hard questions nor apparently of serious laughs and fabulous songs, which make the hard questions easier to ask.” I was struck time after time at how relevant this play still is. It is so funny because it is still true, like when a senator says, “I haven’t read the constitution! I’m too busy defending it!” and during the tongue-in-cheek “The Begat.”
The standout performance of the night – though everyone in the cast deserves a major shout out for a great job – was Nicole Elledge as Sharon McLonergan. “How are Things in Glocca Morra” is an iconic and difficult song and she has one of the best voices I have ever heard on stage. Period. Jimmy Mavrikes (Og the leprechaun) was also very strong and hilarious as he conquered the tongue-twisting lyrics and dialogue of this character. He walked a very thin line between having fun with it and making fun of his character. The latter would have turned into caricature, but like the best in a traditional fool role, you laugh and your eyes are opened and it was a delight whenever he was onstage. Matt Miller as the eponymous Finian had a job to do to anchor the play and he succeeded while delivering barrel of laughs to the audience every other minute. His comic timing is awesome and he can sing. Matthew Hirsch (Woody Mahoney) has a clear, impressive voice and brought an easy southern charm to his role as the good guy. It’s a hard role sometimes when there are so many funny roles around you, but he accomplished it with earnest talent.
James Tarrant (Senator Rawkins) reveled in shocking the audience into guffaws as the clueless but forceful politician and Nakia Verner (Dottie) brought the house down with her rendition of “Necessity.” Julius Williams (Bill) had some excellent moments of physical comedy and he has a great voice as well.
Costume Designer Eleanor Dicks imbuies every costume of the chorus and leads with its own personality and when the “Shears-Robust” catalogue items arrive, the costumes are truly fantastic. The best, though, was the leprechaun’s, who keeps growing taller in an ingenious pair of pants.
It was inspiring to see this young, extremely talented cast throw themselves at the politically uncomfortable, yet bone-shaking truths Finian Rainbow explores and it works because of their conviction and talent. As Woody says, “There are some things you can only say in song,” and these actors are singing their hearts out in what might as well have been an impressive professional production.
With only three performances remaining, I strongly urge everyone to “Look to the Rainbow” and enjoy the charm, the beauty, and the energy of Catholic University’s magnificent Finian’s Rainbow.
Running Time: Approximately two hours with a 15 minute intermission.
Finian’s Rainbow plays through October 28, 2012 at the Hartke Theater – 3801 Harewood Road, N.E., in Washington, D.C. Purchase tickets online.
Parker Esse on Directing and Choreographing Finian’s Rainbow on DCMTA.